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Cleaning your Hair with Conditioner, Does it Really?


If you have been natural for longer then 1 week, I am sure–no I am absolutely certain that you have heard someone say “Co-wash“. If you were clueless about the whole natural thing like I was, then you probably thought this was how someone with an accent says “cold wash”.   A co-wash is easy to do, just wash your hair with conditioner instead of shampoo.  It sounds really bizarre, and it may take you some time to wrap your head around how is it that a product that is meant to restore and add moisture to your hair can also cleanse your hair at the same time.

It really depends most on the ingredients in the conditioner and the state of your hair at the time you plan to use the conditioner.  Let’s break down both.

Cleansing Ingredients in your Conditioner

There is actually science and logic to support this hair care regime. Shampoos are typically composed of about 10-15% detergent. They use surfactants like Sodium Laureth Sulfate or Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate which do an excellent job of cleaning and removing oil from hair.
Conditioners also have detergents, but they are different than those found in shampoos. They use cationic surfactants (or quats) which have the tendency to stick to the hair, which is how they provide conditioning. Common quats are Cetrimonium Chloride or Distearyldimonium Chloride. They’re used at levels between 1% and 5%. Although they do stick to the hair, these ingredients also have the ability to cleanse the hair, which is why the no-poo washing system can work.¹

If you turned your conditioner over you may find the following ingredients amongst a list of oils and other hard things to pronounce:

glycerin, cetyl alcohol, behentrimonium methosulfate, cetearyl alcohol, stearamidopropyl dimethylamine (SADMA), and amodimethicone

These are very common conditioner ingredients. Here’s what they do: Glycerin can provide moisturization in a leave on product, but it doesn’t do anything for hair when it’s rinsed out. Cetyl and cetearyl alcohol are thickening and emulsifying agents are are used to make a conditioner rich and creamy. Because they`re oil soluble they could, in theory, help lift some of the sebum of your hair and scalp. Behentrimonium methosulfate, SADMA, and amodimethicone are very effective conditioning ingredients because they deposit on the hair.²

How dirty is your hair?

If you’ve recently used gels or products with silicones, petroleum, mineral oil, and/or lanolin, then you may want to use shampoo to effectively cleanse your hair, because conditioners just don’t have the same cleansing detergents as shampoo.  If you did decided to use a conditioner only method after using a combo of these ingredients, you could end up with buildup, itchy scalp, lack luster hair and your hair may even feel weighed down.

However, if you’ve managed to avoid all of these ingredients, rest assured, that conditioner alone will do the job.  You can use any conditioner you prefer.  Some of my favorite conditioners are Design Essentials Natural Moisturizing Conditioner, Giovanni Smooth as Silk Deeper Moisture Conditioner, Herbal Essence Hello Hydration Conditioner, and Shea Moisture Yuccaa & Baobab Volumizing Conditioner.

Why not just use shampoo?

Shampoos have harsh detergents that can leave the hair stripped and dry. Depending on the products you used, you may feel the need to shampoo to thoroughly cleanse your hair.  I find that shampoos labeled “moisturizing” work great in my hair even if they contain sulfates. Using shampoo or no-pooing is a personal preference based on your hair care needs.  When I first went natural I used shampoo every other wash day. The wash days in between, I used conditioner only.  I also co washed mid week to give my hair a moisture boost. There are many shampoos on the market with absolutely no sulfates, these are great alternatives to shampoos with sulfates. It’s your hair, use what you want. Just be informed.

Source¹ Source²